In the wake of an August 1 expose in the New York Times, an agreement reportedly reached by executives at the parent companies of Fox News Channel and MSNBC to rein in the networks' two stars' criticism of each other seems to have fallen apart. The behind-the-scenes deal-making, though, still illustrates the corrosive effect on media of corporate ownership.
The alleged deal concerned MSNBC's Keith Olbermann and Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly. Olbermann seemed to deny any arrangement limiting his speech, and criticized Fox and O'Reilly right after the Times story was published (8/3/09). O'Reilly, in turn, resumed his criticism of GE on his August 5 show. But many questions remain about the nature of the deal.
The two hosts have feuded for years; in response to Olbermann's on-air criticism of him, O'Reilly attacked not only Olbermann but the entire NBC franchise, including NBC parent GE--zeroing in on the corporation's business in Iran. "If my child were killed in Iraq," O'Reilly once declared (4/14/08), "I would blame the likes of [GE CEO] Jeffrey Immelt."
Olbermann's rants helped make his show MSNBC's top ratings-getter; according to a May 19, 2008 account by the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz, Fox chair Roger Ailes "warned that if Olbermann didn't stop such attacks against Fox, he would unleash O'Reilly against NBC." As one GE spokesperson put it, executives at News Corp. "tell us if the attacks on O'Reilly end, the attacks on GE will end. They've had conversations with our news executives saying, 'If you stop, we'll stop.'''
More than a year later, the New York Times report depicted executives at both companies as eager to end the conflict--GE in particular had seen O'Reilly's criticism spill over into a shareholder meeting (Reuters, 4/23/09). When Immelt and News Corp.'s Rupert Murdoch were interviewed at a Microsoft-sponsored CEO summit in May of this year, the Times report indicates that they expressed interest in a truce of some sort. Soon thereafter, an agreement was hashed out, and the criticism from both sides dramatically diminished.
According to the Times, MSNBC president Phil Griffin "told producers that he wanted the channel's other programs to follow Mr. Olbermann's lead and restrain from criticizing Fox directly, according to two employees." For his part, Olbermann told the paper, "I am party to no deal." While Olbermann seemed adamant that he was not under any obligation to stop criticizing Fox, other MSNBC sources indicated that they indeed felt muzzled. Indeed, Salon's Glenn Greenwald (8/3/09) reported that one regular MSNBC guest "was recently told by a segment producer that explicit mentions of Fox News were prohibited," and that "there has been talk among MSNBC employees ever since the GE edict was issued about ways to protest it and to stand up for their journalistic freedom.... Everything has been discussed at MSNBC from joint defiance of this edict to mini-strikes in the form of prolonged vacations and absences."
While one might expect little in the way of journalistic ethics from Fox News (CJR, 5-6/98), what about MSNBC? While the channel does have a more liberal political slant--at least for a few hours in the evening-- it is certainly not immune from corporate pressure. Most notably, MSNBC canceled antiwar host Phil Donahue's program in the run-up to the Iraq War, as NBC executives panicked about showcasing even the slightest dissent (FAIR Action Alert, 3/7/03). When host Ashleigh Banfield's criticism of pro-war jingoism in the media offended NBC management (New York Times, 5/5/03), she was demoted and eventually fired. CNN's Jessica Yellin and CBS anchor Katie Couric made similar comments about the political climate at MSNBC and NBC (Salon, 8/1/09).
And Olbermann was not exempted from MSNBC's political pressures. In a 2005 interview with Al Franken, Olbermannsaid:
Olbermann's criticism of right-wing demagogues at Fox News was one of the key features that made his show one of the most popular in cable news. But at MSNBC, evidently, ratings ultimately are not as important as the interests of its corporate parent. While it's encouraging that Olbermann has made it clear that he intends to continue criticizing Fox where appropriate, what should one make of the silence of his bosses-- the people who, apparently, arranged this "cease-fire"? If GE's journalists indeed have freedom to report the news as they see fit, the company's executives should say so. If not, they should explain how and why they put this policy into effect.
Call on General Electric to renounce any corporate agreement to limit the expression of Countdown host Keith Olbermann and other MSNBC/NBC journalists.
Executive Director, Communications & Public Affairs